Conan the unconquered, p.1
Conan the Unconquered, p.1Part #3 of Robert Jordans Conan Novels series by Robert Jordan
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Table of Contents
Tor Books by Robert Jordan
The Adventures of Conan Published by Tor Books
Storm winds howling off the midnight-shrouded Vilayet Sea clawed at the granite-walled compound of the Cult of Doom. The compound gave the appearance of a small city, though there were no people on its streets at that hour. More than the storm and the lateness kept them fast in their beds, praying for sleep, though but a bare handful of them could have put a finger to the real reason, and those that could did not allow themselves to think on it. The gods uplift, and the gods destroy. But no one ever believes the gods will touch them.
The man who was now called Jhandar did not know if gods involved themselves in the affairs of mortals, or indeed if gods existed, but he did know there were Powers beneath the sky. There were indeed Powers, and one of those he had learned to use, even to control after a fashion. Gods he would leave to those asleep in the compound, those who called him their Great Lord.
Now he sat cross-legged in saffron robes before such a Power. The chamber was plain, its pearly marble walls smooth, its two arched entrances unadorned. Simple round columns held the dome that rose above the shallow pool, but ten paces across, that was the room’s central feature. There was no ornamentation, for friezes or sculptures or ornate working of stone could not compete with that pool, and the Power within.
Water, it might seem at first glance, but it was not. It was sharply azure and flecked with argent phosphorescence. Jhandar meditated, basking in the radiance of Power, and the pool glowed silver-blue, brighter and brighter until the chamber seemed lit with a thousand lamps. The surface of the pool bubbled and roiled, and mists rose, solidifying. But only so far. The mists formed a dome, as if a mirror image of the pool below, delineating the limits that contained the Power, both above and below. Within ultimate disorder was bound, Chaos itself confined. Once Jhandar had seen such a pool loosed from its bonds, and fervently did he wish never to see such again. But that would not happen here. Not now. Not ever.
Now he could feel the Power seeping into his very bones. It was time. Smoothly he rose and made his way through one of the archways, down a narrow passage lit by bronze lamps, bare feet padding on cool marble. He prided himself on his lack of ostentation, even to so small a thing as not wearing sandals. He, like the pool, needed no adornment.
The passage let into a circular sanctorum, its albescent walls worked in intricate arabesques, its high vaulted ceiling held aloft by fluted alabaster columns. Light came from golden cressets suspended aloft on silver chains. Massive bronze doors barred the chamber’s main entrance, their surfaces within and without worked in a pattern of Chaos itself, by an artist under the influence of the Power, before madness and death had taken him. The Power was not for all.
The forty men gathered there, a fifth part of his Chosen, did need this show of splendor to reflect the glory of their cause. Yet the most important single item in that chamber, an altar set in the exact center of the circle formed by the room, was of unornamented black marble.
Two-score men turned silently as Jhandar entered, saffron robed and shaven of head as the laws of the cult demanded, just as it forbade its women to cut their tresses. Eager eyes watched him; ears strained to hear his words.
“I am come from the Pool of the Ultimate,” he intoned, and a massive sigh arose, as if he had come from the presence of a god. Indeed, he suspected they considered it much the same, for though they believed they knew the purposes and meanings of the Cult, in truth they knew nothing.
Slowly Jhandar made his way to the black altar, and all eyes followed him, glowing with the honor of gazing on one they considered but a step removed from godhead himself. He did not think of himself so, for all his ambitions. Not quite.
Jhandar was a tall man, cleanly muscled but slender. Bland, smooth features combined with his shaven head to make his age indeterminate, though something in his dark brown eyes spoke of years beyond knowing. His ears were square, but set on his head in such a fashion that they seemed slightly pointed, giving him an other-worldly appearance. But it was the eyes that oft convinced others he was a sage ere he even opened his mouth. In fact he was not yet thirty.
He raised his arms above his head, letting the folds of his robes fall back. “Attend me!”
“We attend, Great Lord!” forty throats spoke as one.
“In the beginning was nothingness. All came from nothingness.”
“And to nothingness must all return.”
Jhandar allowed a slight smile to touch his thin mouth. That phrase, watchword of his followers, always amused him. To nothingness, indeed, all must return. Eventually. But not soon. At least, not him.
While he was yet a boy, known by the first of many names he would bear, fate had carried him beyond the Vilayet Sea, beyond even far Vendhya, to Khitai of near fable. There, at the feet of a learned thaumaturge, an aged man with long, wispy mustaches and a skin the color of luteous ivory, he had learned much. But a lifetime spent in the search for knowledge was not for him. In the end he had been forced to slay the old man to gain what he wanted, the mage’s grimoire, his book of incantations and spells. Then, before he had mastered more than a handful, the murder was discovered, and he imprisoned. Yet he had known enough to free himself of that bare stone cell, though he had of necessity to flee Khitai. There had been other flights in his life, but those were long past. His errors had taught him. Now his way was forward, and upward, to heights without end.
“In the beginning all of totality was inchoate. Chaos ruled.”
“Blessed be Holy Chaos,” came the reply.
“The natural state of the universe was, and is, Chaos. But the gods appeared, themselves but children of Chaos, and forced order—unnatural, unholy order—upon the very Chaos from which they sprang.” His voice caressed them, raised their fears, then soothed those fears, lifted their hopes and fanned their fervor. “And in that forcing they gave a foul gift to man, the impurity that forever bars the vast majority of humankind from attaining a higher order of consciousness, from becoming as gods. For it is from Chaos, from ultimate disorder, that gods come, and man has within him the taint of enforced order.”
He paused then, spreading his arms as if to embrace them. Ecstacy lit their eyes as they waited for him to give the benediction they expected, and needed.
“Diligently,” he said, “have you labored to rid yourselves of the impurities of this world. Your worldly goods you have cast aside. Pleasures of the flesh you
“Blessed be Holy Chaos! We are the Chosen of Holy Chaos!”
“Let the woman Natryn be brought forth,” Jhandar commanded.
From a cubicle where she had been kept waiting the Lady Natryn, wife of Lord Tariman, was led into the columned chamber. She did not look now the wife of one of the Seventeen Attendants, the advisors to King Yildiz of Turan. Naked, she stumbled in the hobble that confined her ankles, and would have fallen had not two of the Chosen roughly held her erect. Her wrists, fastened behind her with tight cords, lay on the swell of her buttocks. Her large brown eyes bulged in terror, and her lips worked frantically around a leather gag. Slender, yet full-breasted and well-rounded of hip, her body shone with the sweat of fear. No eyes there but Jhandar’s looked on her as a woman, though, for the Chosen had forsaken such things.
“You have attempted to betray me, Natryn.”
The naked woman shook at Jhandar’s words as if pierced with needles. She had dabbled in the teachings of the cult as did many bored women of the nobility, but her husband made her different, and necessary to Jhandar’s great plan. With his necromancies he had learned every dark and shameful corner of her life. Most noblewomen of Turan had secrets they would kill to hide, and she, with lovers and vices almost beyond listing, was no different. Natryn had wept at his revelations, and rebelled at his commands, but seemingly at the last she had accepted her duty to place certain pressures on her husband. Instead, the sorcerous watch he kept on her revealed that she intended to go to her husband, to reveal all and throw herself on his mercy. Jhandar had not slain her where she lay in the supposed safety of her chambers in her husband’s palace, but had had her brought hither to serve her purpose in his grand design. It was death she feared, but he intended worse for her.
“Prepare her,” the necromancer commanded.
The woman flung herself about futilely in the grasp of the men who fastened her by wrists and ankles to the black altar stone. The gag was removed; she licked fear-dried lips. “Mercy, Great Lord!” she pleaded. “Let me serve you!”
“You do,” Jhandar replied.
From a tray of beaten gold proffered by one of the Chosen, the mage took a silver-bladed knife and lifted it high above the woman’s body. His follower hastily set the tray on the floor by the altar and backed away. Natryn’s screams blended with Jhandar’s chant as he invoked the Power of Chaos. His words rang from the walls, though he did not shout; he had no wish to drown her wails. He could feel the Power flowing in him, flowing through him. Silvery-azure, a dome appeared, enveloping altar, sacrifice and necromancer. The Chosen fell to their knees, pressed their faces to the marble floor in awe. Jhandar’s knife plunged down. Natryn convulsed and shrieked one last time as the blade stabbed to the hilt beneath her left breast.
Quickly Jhandar bent to take a large golden bowl from the tray. Blade and one quillon of that knife were hollow, so that a vivid scarlet stream of heart’s blood spurted into the bowl. Swiftly the level rose. Then the flow slowed, stopped, and only a few drops fell to make carmine ripples.
Withdrawing the blade, Jhandar held knife and bowl aloft, calling on the Power in words of ice, calling on life that was not life, death that was not death. Still holding the bowl on high, he tilted it, pouring out Natryn’s heart blood. That sanguinary stream fell, and faded into nothingness, and with it faded the glowing dome.
A smile of satisfaction on his face, Jhandar let the implements of his sorcery clatter to the floor. No longer did a wound mar Natryn’s beauty. “Awake, Natryn,” he commanded, undoing her bonds.
The eyes of the woman who had just been stabbed to the heart fluttered open, and she stared at Jhandar, her gazed filled with horror and emptiness. “I … I was dead,” she whispered. “I stood before Erlik’s Throne.” Shivering, she huddled into a ball on the altar. “I am cold.”
“Certainly you are cold,” Jhandar told her cruelly. “No blood courses in your veins, for you are no longer alive. Neither are you dead. Rather you stand between, and are bound to utter obedience until true death finds you.”
“No,” she wept. “I will not—”
“Be silent,” he said. Her protests died on the instant.
Jhandar turned back to his followers. The Chosen had dared now to raise their faces, and they watched him expectantly. “For what do you strike?” he demanded.
From beneath their robes the Chosen produced needle-sharp daggers, thrusting them into the air. “For disorder, confusion and anarchy, we strike!” they roared. “For Holy Chaos, we strike! To the death!”
“Then strike!” he commanded.
The daggers disappeared, and the Chosen filed from the chamber to seek those whose names Jhandar had earlier given them.
It was truly a pity, the necromancer thought, that the old mage no longer lived. How far his pupil had outstripped him, and how much greater yet that pupil was destined to become!
He snapped his fingers, and she who was now only partly Lady Natryn of Turan followed him meekly from the sacrificial chamber.
Many cities bore appellations, ‘the Mighty’ or ‘the Wicked,’ but Aghrapur, that great city of ivory towers and golden domes, seat of the throne of Turan and center of her citizens’ world, had no need of such. The city’s wickedness and might were so well known that an appellation would have been gilt laid upon gold.
One thousand and three goldsmiths were listed in the Guild Halls, twice so many smiths in silver, half again that number dealers in jewelry and rare gems. They, with a vast profusion of merchants in silks and perfumes, catered to hot-blooded, sloe-eyed noblewomen and sleek, sensuous courtesans who oft seemed more ennobled than their sisters of proper blood. Every vice could be had within Aghrapur’s lofty alabaster walls, from the dream-powders and passion-mists peddled by oily men from Iranistan to the specialized brothels of the Street of Doves.
Turanian triremes ruled the cerulean expanse of the Vilayet Sea, and into Aghrapur’s broad harbor dromonds brought the wealth of a dozen nations. The riches of another score found its way to the markets by caravan. Emeralds and apes, ivory and peacocks, whatever people wanted could be found, no matter whence it came. The stench of slavers from Khawarism was drowned in the wafted scent of oranges from Ophir, of myrrh and cloves from Vendhya, of attar of roses from Khauran and subtle perfumes from Zingara. Tall merchants from Argos strode the flagstones of her broad streets, and dark men from Shem. Fierce Ibars mountain tribesmen rubbed shoulders with Corinthian scholars, and Kothian mercenaries with traders from Keshan. It was said that no day passed in Aghrapur without the meeting of men, each of whom believed the other’s land to be a fable.
The tall youth who strode those teeming streets with the grace of a hunting cat had no mind for the wonders of the city, however. Fingers curled lightly on the well-worn leather hilt of his broadsword, he passed marble palaces and fruit peddlers’ carts with equal unconcern, a black-maned lion unimpressed by piles of stone. Yet if his agate-blue eyes were alert, there was yet travel weariness on his sun-bronzed face, and his scarlet-edged cloak was stained with sweat and dust. It had been a hard ride from Sultanapur, with little time before leaving for saying goodbye to friends or gathering possessions, if he was to avoid the headsman’s axe. A small matter of smuggling, and some other assorted offenses against the King’s peace.
He had come far since leaving the rugged northern crags of his native Cimmerian mountains, and not only in distance. Some few years he had spent as a thief, in Nemedia and Zamora and the Corinthian city-states, yet though his years still numbered fewer than twenty the desire had come on him to better himself. He had seen many beggars who had been thieves in their youth, but never had he seen a rich thief. The gold that came from stealing seemed to drip away like water through a sieve. He would find better for himself. The failure of his smuggling effort had not dimmed his ardor in the least. All things could be found in Aghrapur, or so it was said. At the
The sound of off-key music penetrated his thoughts, and he became aware of a strange procession approaching him down the thronging street. A wiry, dark-skinned sergeant of the Turanian army, in wide breeches and turban-wrapped spiral helmet, curved tulwar at his hip, was trailed by another soldier beating a drum and two others raggedly blowing flutes. Behind them came half a score more, bearing halberds and escorting, or guarding, a dozen young men in motley garb who seemed to be trying to march to the drum. The sergeant caught the big youth’s glance and quickly stepped in front of him.
“The gods be with you. Now I can see that you are a man seeking—” The sergeant broke off with a grunt. “Mitra! Your eyes!”
“What’s wrong with my eyes?” the muscular youth growled.
“Not a thing, friend,” the sergeant replied, raising a hand apologetically. “But never did I see eyes the color of the sea before.”
“Where I come from there are few with dark eyes.”
“Ah. A far traveler come to seek adventure. And what better place to find it than in the army of King Yildiz of Turan? I am Alshaam. And how are you called?”
“Conan,” the muscular youth replied. “But I’ve no interest in joining your army.”
“But think you, Conan,” the sergeant continued with oily persuasiveness, “how it will be to return from campaign with as much booty as you can carry, a hero and conqueror in the women’s eyes. How they’ll fall over you. Why, man, from the look of you, you were born for it.”
“Why not try them?” Conan said, jerking his head toward a knot of Hyrkanian nomads in sheepskin coats and baggy trousers of coarse wool. They wore fur caps pulled tightly over grease-laced hair, and eyed everyone about them suspiciously. “They look as if they might want to be heroes,” he laughed.
The sergeant spat sourly. “Not a half-weight of discipline in the lot of them. Odd to see them here. They generally don’t like this side of the Vilayet Sea. But you, now. Think on it. Adventure, glory, loot, women. Why—”
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